Given these descriptions two years ago,
most Winston Cup fans would have picked Jeff Gordon as the first driver and Dale Earnhardt
as the second.
Now the roles are reversed.
In 1998, Earnhardt won the Daytona 500. But many thought that it was one last hurrah,
breaking a string of 59 races without a victory. He didn't win again that year, struggling
enough that team owner Richard Childress made a crew chief switch in the middle of the
season. Earnhardt finished eighth in the points standings.
The Winston Cup champion that season was Jeff Gordon, who had perhaps the most dominant
season of NASCAR's so-called modern era. He won 13 races, including four in a row. He
finished in the top five an unbelievable 26 times in 33 races.
The title was Gordon's third. Since he started the season at the age of 26, many
thought he would make a run at the NASCAR record for most championships in his career, a
mark that coincidentally is held by Earnhardt.
Earnhardt shares the record with Richard Petty, and breaking that tie is his top
priority. He's making a strong run at it so far in 2000, sitting second in the standings.
Gordon is 10th, a place most teams would love to be but a big drop for the Rainbow
Warriors. While both drivers have a victory this season, Gordon hasn't been a weekly
threat. Earnhardt, meanwhile, has been the most consistent driver on the Winston Cup
Not only that, Earnhardt is grinning and popping off one-liners as he walks around the
garage area. On the track, he's bumping and grinding like the days of old. Once again,
other competitors are intimidated.
"I'm as happy as I can be," Earnhardt said. "I just love to go get in
the car because it is just so much fun to go racing."
Earnhardt, 49, has a great deal to enjoy. He has two Winston Cup teams of his own,
those driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park, and his prodigies are enjoying strong
success. That has helped make him find the fountain of youth. He has also enjoyed the new
Monte Carlo body, saying it gives him many of the things he needs to win. And he has
benefited from racing with crew chief Kevin Hamlin, whose style meshes well with the
complex Earnhardt, for two seasons.
Earnhardt tells car owner Childress that he has also been able to concentrate better
"I don't know, he's been eating his Wheaties or something," Childress said
while trying to describe Earnhardt's rebirth. "It's incredible. I don't think he ever
thought he'd be this strong, but he is and that's good. I think he is doing an awesome
job, I just hope that I get my act together to get back where I've been in the past."
Earnhart says the key is working together with Childress and being patient.
"Every driver goes through years or situations that aren't favorable,"
Earnhardt said. "I just hung in there with Richard, and we kept working and tuning
and now we have the right situation."
Gordon, seen as Earnhardt's heir to the Winston Cup throne since he showed flashes of
brilliance as a rookie, is now looking for the right situation. Gordon remains upbeat, but
he has been merely mortal since losing Ray Evernham as crew chief late in 1999. Brian
Whitesell didn't work out, and things haven't been going well with Robbie Loomis as the
"We're trying to get the chemistry and get this team clicking again," Gordon
says. "No one on this team is hanging our head. We're trying to stick together, work
hard and get better.
"It's definitely a test. We're finding out what we are made of."
Gordon eventually will find out that how he handles this period of his life will
determine how history remembers him. Every great driver goes through a time when he must
re-invent himself. If Gordon can't ultimately get things righted, he will forever be
tainted. The credit for his three titles will go to the awesome resources of owner Rick
Hendrick and wizardry of Evernham.
Gordon is getting to call the shots for his team, so the direction that the No. 24
Chevy goes is pretty much up to him. Can he recapture the magic?
Childress knows that Earnhardt has, so don't be surprised if the two don't swap places
again as Dale Sr.'s career winds down. Childress says the cycles are almost inevitable,
and that Earnhardt and Gordon probably aren't getting enough credit for pushing forward at
a time when NASCAR is perhaps the most competitive it has ever been.
"I think a lot of people compare everything to previous years, and I think they've
been comparing our performance to previous years," Childress said. "But I think
you've got to look at the overall picture of the whole sport, where it's at, how
competitive it is today, and how people continue to get better and better.
"Any time you go through the changes that we've gone through, you may take a few
steps back in order to take those giant leaps forward."